Tag Archives: inner life

Can Embracing Bad Feelings Increase Your Well-Being?

September 5, 2017

Many people struggle with negative, even destructive feelings – about themselves, about others; about emotions aroused in their careers or relationships. Trying to stifle negative emotions — or feeling bad about having them to begin with — is pretty common. It causes much distress and struggle; and often brings people into psychotherapy.

The irony, here, is that resisting your “bad” feelings actually intensifies them. Psychological health and well-being grows from the opposite: Embracing them. Now, some new research provides empirical evidence that. In essence, you can feel better by allowing yourself to feel bad.

That’s what meditative practices help you learn to do, and that accounts for much of the rise in popularity of meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices. Consider this: When you try to deny or stifle any “parts” of yourself – whether undesirable emotions, desires or fears, you become fragmented. But you need a sense of integration; of wholeness inside. That’s what grows your well-being and your capacity to handle the ups and downs, the successes and failures; part of that relentless change and impermanence that is life.

One of the new studies, conducted with 1300 adults in the course of three experiments, underscored that in its findings. For example, it found that that people who try to resist negative emotions are more likely to experience psychiatric symptoms later, compared with those who accept such emotions. The latter group – those who showed greater acceptance of their negative feelings and experiences – also showed higher levels of well-being and mental health. Continue reading

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Want Long-Term Well-Being In Life? Your Mind Is The Key!

July 18, 2017

Some new research finds that long-term well-being in life is more dependent on psychological and social factors than on your physical state. That contrasts with the assumption many make that physical aging has the most impact upon your experience of life. In essence, the research shows that your overall conscious experience of life has greater impact. Your state of consciousness reflects a blend of emotional, mental and social experiences over the course of your life. I would include spiritual dimensions as well; i.e. your overall sense of purpose along the way.

According to researcher, Karl-Heinz Ludwig, “Ageing itself is not inevitably associated with a decline in mood and quality of life. It is rather the case that psychosocial factors such as depression or anxiety impair subjective well-being.”

And, “To date, the impact of emotional stress has barely been investigated.” The study, from researchers in Germany, was published in BMC Geriatrics and is described more fully in this press release.

“What made the study particularly interesting was the fact that the impact of stress on emotional well-being has barely been investigated in a broader, non-clinical context,” said lead author Karoline Lukaschek. “Our study therefore explicitly included anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.”

The research found that depression and anxiety had the strongest effect on well-being. Low income and sleep disorders also had a negative effect. However, poor physical health (for example, low physical activity or so-called multi-morbidity) seemed to have little impact on perceived life satisfaction. Among women, living alone also significantly increased the probability of a low sense of well-being.

All of these factors are important, Ludwig said, “…given that we know that high levels of subjective well-being are linked to a lower mortality risk.” 

Credit: Pexels/ Julian Jagtenberg

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Seeking Greater Health And Well-Being? Try Showing Gratitude, Research Finds!

April 25, 2017

You’re probably aware of the periodic reminders we receive about the importance of feeling and showing gratitude towards others’ acts of kindness and generosity. And, that it’s also good to feel grateful for whatever’s positive in your own life. But such reminders are often couched in a moral or religious framework: that it’s good to do. But realistically, you might think that it isn’t all that relevant to what’s really important in life – like making money, or acquiring status and power.

So consider this: A new study finds a direct link between expressing gratitude and increasing your physical and emotional well-being. Not just a moral exhortation, showing gratitude increases your overall health.

I’m not surprised to see empirical confirmation of what I’ve found – and have recommended – to people for many years. So often we’re caught up in a sense of self-importance regarding our own troubles, whether major or trivial. We can easily sink into victimhood while ignoring all that we have to be grateful for in our lives; all that is positive in our life circumstances, despite the “negatives” that we may dwell in. Or comparing ourselves with others whom we imagine to be better off, in some way. 

In short, practicing an attitude of gratitude – really experiencing it – is a component of increasing resilience in the face of the fluid, ever-changing world we live in; and building greater psychological health.

This new study provides evidence of that. From the University of Montana and published in the Review of Communication, it examined the evidence of the connections between expressing gratitude and overall health. The authors find that gratitude – which stems from the actions of another and your response to them — is associated with psychological well-being and increased positive states such as life satisfaction, vitality, hope, and optimism. It also contributes to decreased levels of depression, anxiety, envy, and job-related stress and burnout. Moreover, people who experience and express gratitude have reported fewer symptoms of physical illness, more exercise, and better quality of sleep

The study’s authors, Stephen M. Yoshimura and Kassandra Berzins, suggest that “gratitude promotes social relationships by giving grateful people an appearance of warmth and responsiveness, increasing their trust in others, and motivating them to approach and bond with their benefactors.” Further, they point out that gratitude can help people find high-quality relationship partners and can lead to greater long-term relationship satisfaction because of the mutual support and caring it generates. And that, in turn, is an essential part of long-term psychological well-being.

The authors conclude, in a low-key way, “Social connectedness, perhaps through the increased willingness and ability to communicate gratitude, could serve as a recommendable health practice.”

No argument there!

Credit: Regenerate

A version of this article also appeared in Psychology Today

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Enjoying Life, Helping Others…And Your Longevity

January 24, 2017

Two new, unrelated, studies show interesting links between longevity and your experience of life; especially how you actually live it. I think both raise questions about the latter. To explain, researchers from University College London looked at previous findings that single occasions of of enjoyment and life satisfaction appeared linked with greater longevity. The researchers then extended that to look at the impact of enjoying life over a longer period.

The new study of over 9000 adults in their 60s was conducted at two-year intervals. It found that the death rate was progressively higher among people who experienced fewer occasions of enjoying life – even when accounting for other possible factors. Those reporting the most frequent experience of enjoying life had a death rate of 24 percent lower than others in the study. The researchers concluded that the longer an individual experiences life enjoyment, the lower the risk of death.

However, in my view, this study raises the question of what fuels and supports a sense of enjoying life through the years to begin with? I see a key source: having a sense of purpose and engagement in life — a reason for living — tends to lead to greater overall health, which can translate into greater longevity. And that larger purpose is associated with engaging in something larger than just oneself. — something that draws on one’s mental, emotional and creative capacities in the service of something meaningful.

The other study I referred to corroborates that point: It found that people who care for others, who provide emotional support and help people in some way, also experience longer lives. That joint study from several universities, described in this report from the University of Basel, was published in Evolution & Human Behavior.

I think the upshot of studies like these, combined with clinical observation, is that moving beyond fixation with yourself — your own ego, your body, your “needs” — is the key to mind-body-spiritual health over the long run. And it’s no surprise that longevity is a by-product.

Credit: Markgrove.tv

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Life’s Dilemmas And Crossroads – A Few Reflections

January 10, 2017

“People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” — James Baldwin (1924-1987). Baldwin’s observations reminds me so much of how often I’ve heard someone tell me, in one version or another, “I don’t like the person that I’ve become…”

Similarly, there’s the lament, “I waited too long…now what?” — I’ve often heard that from a person who’s awakened to realizing what they’ve wanted to do or express in their life, but always postponed. Or, they’ve discovered that they’ve been sleepwalking through the years. And there are fewer of them remaining.

Credit: CPD Archive

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Being Kind To Others Elevates Your Wellbeing, Research Finds

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-11-46-pmNovember 1, 2016

This small but useful study from Oxford researchers underscores our human interconnectedness; and that doing something positive for others enhances our own happiness. In a review of 400 published studies about the relationship between kindness and happiness, the researchers found that being kind did have a modest, but noticeable impact on the person’s happiness. 

Although the review of the 400 studies found that the effect is lower than some pop-psychology articles have claimed, the researches pointed out that future research might help identify which kind acts are most effective at boosting happiness. They noted that existing research does not distinguish between kindness to family and friends versus strangers and, taking this into account, targeted kindness rather than indiscriminate kindness may have a greater effect on happiness.

The study’s lead author Oliver Scott Curry pointed out that “Our review suggests that performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction. We recommend further research is done to compare the effects of being kind to family and friends as opposed to strangers. This is an area about which we know surprisingly little at the moment.”

Nevertheless, this brings to my mind the teachings from most spiritual and philosophical traditions, which describe the greater joy and happiness one experiences when doing something positively for others; when giving to others. For example, this from the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927):

“A person who, alone, has seen something beautiful, who has heard something harmonious, who has tasted something delicious, who has smelt something fragrant, may have enjoyed it, but not completely. The complete joy is in sharing one’s joy with others. For the selfish one who enjoys himself and does not care for others, whether he enjoys things of the earth or things of heaven, his enjoyment is not complete.” 

Credit: Explore Curiocity

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Yoga Practice Reduces Anxiety Disorder, New Research Finds

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-36-58-amOctober 11, 2016

I’ve written previously about new research that shows how mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation have a positive impact mental and physical health. I recently came across a new study, and it adds to the accumulating evidence about the value of these practices. This one finds that yoga, in particular, can help reduce and diminish anxiety – the most widespread type that we describe – in the terminology of diagnostic categories — as “generalized anxiety disorder.”

Sound familiar? Anxiety, along with depression, are the two most prevalent symptoms that practitioners see; and the most often treated with psychotherapy — along with the many medications that pharmaceutical companies have created for this enormous market.

This new research by Georgia State University, and published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, looked at the effects of yoga on three people with anxiety disorder, and whether or not yoga could be helpful. That is, if yoga could serve as an alternative or additional treatment option for people suffering from anxiety.

In short, the researchers found that yoga tended to reduce worry, a primary symptom of anxiety.

As the lead author Jessica Morgan Goodnight explained, “When people have this diagnosis, they worry a lot–uncontrollably–about the future, which causes physical symptoms like muscle tension and trouble sleeping, and their lives and their relationships are impaired because of it.”

She reported that in this study, “Two participants showed decreases in daily worry ratings after they started yoga and reported less worry on a daily basis. The third participant was steadily increasing worry before starting yoga, but the increasing trend ended and began leveling out after she started practicing yoga.”

This is one small study, of course. But I think it’s significant because it shows that yoga can help people with anxiety reduce their symptoms. Other research has shown similar effects from tai chi, Qigong, and that even short-term meditation affects the regions of the brain that are related to anxious and depressed emotional states.

“It’s nice to provide options for people with mental health conditions to try to reduce their symptoms and increase the quality of their lives…(and this shows) yoga could be an option for people.” The researchers say pilot studies like this pave the way for more conclusive research to be conducted in the future.

Credit: UC Santa Barbara

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More Evidence: Literary Fiction Increases Your Emotional Capacities

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-19-20-pmOctober 4, 2016

In a previous essay I argued that reading serious literature – not popular fiction – helps your “evolve” and deepen your self-awareness and emotional capacities; and I cited some research that provided evidence of just that. Now, a new study underscores and adds to those findings and observations.

In my earlier article I wrote, “Delving into serious fiction engages you in the core human issues that everyone grapples with, consciously or unconsciously. The prime one is the question of, “What’s the meaning of life; of my life? And, related issues concerning moral judgment, the impact of social conventions, conflicting paths in life, and so on.”

Related to that, I cited research reported in the New York Times: That reading serious fiction has a demonstrable impact on increasing empathy, social awareness and emotional sensitivity. The study found not only that reading serious fiction increased reader’s emotional awareness and empathy, but that pop fiction did not have the same effect. In my view, those findings illustrate an essential part of becoming more fully human.

And now, a new study has found that reading literary fiction appears to be associated with superior emotion recognition skills. This study found that participants who recognized and were familiar with authors of literary fiction tended to perform better on an emotional recognition test. This association held even after statistically accounting for the influence of other factors that might be connected to both emotion skills and reading more literary fiction, such as past educational attainment, gender and age.

The method of the study is described here, and was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics.

The authors then conducted a second study involving over 300 more participants. It also included a measure of participants’ self-reported empathy levels. This was to check that it’s not simply that people with more empathy are more attracted to literary fiction and also tend to do better at the emotion recognition test. Again, participants who recognized more literary fiction authors also tended to perform better on the emotion test. Moreover, this association remained even after controlling for the influence of differences in participants’ empathy levels.

The authors say they believe the apparent link between reading more literary fiction and better emotion recognition skills emerges because “the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”

So – find a good novel or short story by a writer of serious fiction, and read on!

Credit: Pexels

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Singles Experience Greater Personal Growth Than Married People

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 2.27.42 PMAugust 16, 2016

Our culture is witnessing growing diversity in how people choose to live; with whom, their traditions and norms. But it’s practically a stereotype to portray single people as unhappy, unfulfilled, and lonely; perhaps emotionally troubled. Of course, that can be true for some. We see some psychotherapy patients, for example, who are single and experience significant conflicts in their romantic quests.

But that’s also a misleading assumption. In fact, new research from UC Santa Barbara turns that picture of single people on its head: It finds that single people have heightened feelings of self-determination and are more likely to experience more psychological growth and development than many married people.

According to the study’s lead author, Bella DePaulo, “It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life – one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives so meaningful,” DePaulo adds, “The preoccupation with the perils of loneliness can obscure the profound benefits of solitude.”

And there are plenty who are solitary. Currently, Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 50.2 percent of the nation’s adult population were single as of 2014. “Increasing numbers of people are single because they want to be,” DePaulo points out. “Living single allows them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful life.” Continue reading

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Some Thoughts To Ponder…

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.27.24 AMJune 7, 2016

Think about this: All art, all literature; all science, even, reflects an attempt to understand who we are, what we are, and why we are…as well who this person is that each of us has become at this moment in time and space, on this planet.

And, these quotes to consider as you reflect upon the days and weeks ahead…or anytime.

“Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.” — Doris Lessing (1919-2013), British writer; 2007 Nobel Prize in literature.

“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” — Grace Paley (1922-2007) Short story writer, poet, political activist.

Credit: Caleb George Morris

 

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Prejudice Reduced After Just Brief Periods of Meditation

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 10.57.28 AMApril 19, 2016

This new research is both interesting and encouraging: It found that just seven minutes of meditation can reduce racial prejudice. The study, from the University of Sussex, was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. It used the Buddhist mediation technique of loving-kindness meditation, which promotes unconditional kindness towards oneself and others.

Before describing this particular study, I want to point out that one important implication of this research, in my view, is that prejudices of all sorts are learned and conditioned from a variety of social and cultural forces; and, they can be consciously altered. Knowing this is especially important in our current era of reactive prejudice towards those who are “different,” and whose presence is becoming more visible as our society becomes increasingly diverse.

Regarding this study, the lead researcher Alexander Stell, said: “This indicates that some meditation techniques are about much more than feeling good, and might be an important tool for enhancing inter-group harmony.” This form of meditation is aimed at generating feelings of happiness and kindness towards oneself and others through conscious focus on repeating thoughts and phrases that are positive and beneficent, while visualizing a particular person.

According to Stell, “We wanted to see whether doing loving-kindness meditation towards a member of another ethnic group would reduce the automatic preference people tend to show for their own ethnic group.”

In the study, a sample of 71 white, non-meditating adults were each given a photo of a gender-matched black person and either received taped LKM instructions, or instructions to look at the photos and notice certain features of the face. Both conditions lasted just seven minutes. Details of the experiment are described in this summary from the University.

The researchers found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation directed to a member of a specific racial group (in this case, a black person) was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that group. Additionally the researchers measured levels of positive emotions that were either “other-regarding” (e.g., love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self-directed (e.g., contentment, joy, pride). They found that people doing loving-kindness meditation showed large increases in other-regarding emotions. Those emotions were found to be what drives the reduction of bias.

Credit: CPD Archive

A version of this article also appeared in The Huffington Post

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Wisdom Requires Both “Head” and “Heart”

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 2.51.47 PMApril 5, 2016.

Of course! Our cognitive, logical, linear thought processes must be joined with our capacity for perspective and understanding of the larger context of a problem, for “wisdom” to emerge. This new study finds an interesting dimension of that “oneness”: the variability of the heart rate.

The research was described in this summary from the University of Waterloo. It found that heart rate variation and thinking process work together to enable wise reasoning about complex social issues. The study by Waterloo and the Australian Catholic University was published in  Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The authors state that their study breaks new ground in wisdom research by identifying conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment. “Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability,” says the lead author,Igor Grossmann. “We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”

The study extends previous work on cognitive underpinnings of wise judgment to include consideration how the heart’s functioning impacts the mind. It points out that a growing consensus among philosophers and cognitive scientists defines wise judgment to include the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge, to be aware of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time, to acknowledge others’ points of view, and to seek reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.  Continue reading

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Does More Money or More Time Bring Greater Happiness?

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.47.41 AMFebruary 23, 2016

Here’s a bit of new research I came across. It’s findings sound intuitively obvious, but I think it’s important to emphasize: The study found that valuing your time over the pursuit of money is linked to greater overall happiness. This finding highlights one aspect of a link between healthy personal values and psychologically healthy lives. I regularly see this in my work, and wish it would be more soundly emphasized by my fellow mental health professionals.

In the research, a series of studies of nearly 5,000 people was conducted by the University of British Columbia. It found that there’s a pretty even divide among people’s preferences for valuing their time vs. their money. Unfortunately — but not surprisingly, given our cultural view about what’s most “desirable” in life — only about half of the study’s participants said they valued their time over money. However, slightly more than half of the people were found to value their time over their money.

The important finding, however, was that the preference for giving priority to time over making more money was associated with greater happiness in life. And happiness, wellbeing, equanimity and psychological health are all interwoven.

The study is described in detail here, and was published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.

Interestingly, the study also found that older people also were more likely to say they valued their time compared to younger people. This raises questions about the impact of age upon one’s values and overall life perspectives; and whether the shift in mentality and values hat occurs with increasing age can be supported and grown at earlier stages of life. Continue reading

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Does Having More Money Or More Time Bring You Greater Happiness?

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.27.45 PMJanuary 12, 2016

Here’s a bit of new research I came across. I think it provides an example of healthy values among psychologically healthy people; and should be emphasized by us mental health professionals. The study found that valuing your time over the pursuit of money is linked to greater overall happiness. Not surprisingly, only half of the study’s participants said they valued their time over money.

The research consisted of a series of studies of nearly 5000 people, conducted by the University of British Columbia. It found that there’s a pretty even divide among people’s preferences for valuing their time vs. their money. Actually, slightly more than half of the people valued their time over their money — which is encouraging. 

The study’s basic finding was that the preference for giving priority to time over making more money was associated with greater happiness in life. The study, described in detail here, and published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science, also found that older people also were more likely to say they valued their time compared to younger people.

The study noted that a participant’s gender or income didn’t affect whether they were more likely to value time or money. However, the researchers pointed out they didn’t include participants living at the poverty level who may have to prioritize money to survive. That’s understandable, but it also points out how strongly our culture — incorrectly — associates increasing material wealth with personal happiness and wellbeing in life overall, as though they go hand in hand. And once you go down that road, it’s endless: how much is “enough?” Our social values make the criteria for having “enough” very elusive.

Credit: CPD Archive

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Thoughts To Contemplate For The Holidays…Or Anytime

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 10.05.58 AMDecember 22, 2015

And this, another from the writings of Hafiz, the 14th Century Persian Sufi poet:

“These candles — our bodies – see how they burn.
How many hours will they last – days, months, years?
Look at the warmth and comfort we can give
to each other or to anything that comes close.”

Credit: poetseeers

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Living Together Or Married? No Difference In Your Emotional Health

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 4.35.14 PMDecember 8. 2015

This new research is consistent with recent surveys that show younger people, especially, are more concerned with building a positive, sustaining relationship than with marriage, per se. The current study found that both men and women experience as much of a boost in their emotional well-being whether they move in together or marry. It was a bit more for women, but Interestingly, that boost occurred equally among men and women who had a prior relationship that didn’t work out. 

That finding is significant. I think it reflects the reality that form a lasting love relationship with the right partner requires a prior failure or two. Such experiences are like a “leavening” of the inner self; it builds the foundation for learning what kind of person – his or her values, character, outlook on life — meshes with who you are, along those dimensions. That increases the likelihood that a couple will grow together, emotionally, sexually, intellectually and spiritually, rather than grow apart. 

This new study, described in this report from Ohio State University, was based on data collected throughout the 2000s. It found that, for young adults who moved on from a first relationship, both men and women received similar emotional boosts whether they moved in with their second partner or got married to them. 

The findings suggest an evolving role of marriage among young people today, said Sara Mernitz, co-author of the study. “Now it appears that young people, especially women, get the same emotional boost from moving in together as they do from going directly to marriage,” she said. “There’s no additional boost from getting married.”

Claire Kamp Dush, co-author of the study, pointed out that “We’re finding that marriage isn’t necessary to reap the benefits of living together, at least when it comes to emotional health.” The study appears online in the Journal of Family Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

Credit: NPCC/CPD Archive

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Even Short Periods of Meditation Will Reduce Racial Prejudice

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 6.01.45 PMNovember 24, 2015

Now this is encouraging news: A new study finds that just seven minutes of meditation can reduce racial prejudice. The study, from the University of Sussex, was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. It used the Buddhist mediation technique of loving-kindness meditation, which promotes unconditional kindness towards oneself and others.

The lead researcher Alexander Stell, said: “This indicates that some meditation techniques are about much more than feeling good, and might be an important tool for enhancing inter-group harmony.” This form of meditation is aimed at generating feelings of happiness and kindness towards oneself and others through conscious focus on repeating thoughts and phrases that are positive and beneficent, while visualizing a particular person.

According to Stell, “We wanted to see whether doing loving-kindness meditation towards a member of another ethnic group would reduce the automatic preference people tend to show for their own ethnic group.”

In the study, a sample of 71 white, non-meditating adults were each given a photo of a gender-matched black person and either received taped LKM instructions, or instructions to look at the photos and notice certain features of the face. Both conditions lasted just seven minutes. Details of the experiment are described in this summary from the University.

The researchers found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation directed to a member of a specific racial group (in this case, a black person) was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that group. Additionally the researchers measured levels of positive emotions that were either ‘other-regarding’ (e.g. love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self-directed (e.g. contentment, joy, pride). They found that people doing loving-kindness meditation showed large increases in other-regarding emotions. Those emotions were found to be what drives the reduction of bias.

Credit: Bigstock

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How Depression Damages Your Memory And Concentration

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November 10, 2015

A new study finds that depression can diminish what you retain in your memory, as well as interfere with your ability to stay mentally focused. This research confirms what we see clinically among people who experience persistent negative, depressed moods and mental states. I think these findings underscore we are one integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual-environmental organism. All dimensions of ourselves and our life experiences, both “inner” and “outer,” affect all others – emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally.

The study, from the University of Texas at Dallas, and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, is the first to show that depressive thoughts are maintained for longer periods of time for people with depressed mood, and this may reduce the amount of information that they can hold in their memory.

According to lead author Bart Rypma, “We have known that negative thoughts tend to last longer for those with depression. However, this study is unique in showing that, these thoughts, triggered from stimuli in the environment, can persist to the point that they hinder a depressed person’s ability to keep their train of thought.”

And, added researcher Nick Hubbard, “The fact that depressive thoughts do not seem to go away once they enter memory certainly explains why depressed individuals have difficulty concentrating or remembering things in their daily lives. This preoccupation of memory by depressive thoughts might also explain why more positive thoughts are often absent in depression; there simply is not enough space for them.” The UT Center for Brain Health’s summary describes how the study was conducted and the data it provided.

I think this research points to the value of both mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy. Both can help people build their inner resources for, on the one hand, managing the impact of depressed mood upon their mental focus; and on the other hand — most importantly — envisioning positive emotional experiences to create in daily life. Both forms of help can gradually subsume a person’s cognitive and emotional dimensions of depressed thoughts and attitudes; as well as help them expand beyond their often fixed, negative view of themselves, which impedes creating a more positive experience of life.

Credit: Addinginspiration

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Psychedelics Increasingly Used For Healing And Growth

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 2.54.17 PMOctober 13, 2015

The benefits of psychedelics for a range of emotional conflicts has been gaining increased recognition and re-emergence into — hopefully — the mainstream of treatment. In addition, researchers who are now legally allowed to conduct studies on their benefits are also finding that psychedelic drugs can have profound, transformative effects upon people — not just those who experience emotional conflicts such as anxiety or PTSD. 

An analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal finds, according to a summary of the research, that psychedelic drugs have a strong effect on one’s conscious experience. They include such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin, found in “magic mushrooms,” dimethyltryptamine (DMT), mescaline and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). According to Evan Wood, one of the co-authors, “The re-emerging paradigm of psychedelic medicine may open clinical doors and therapeutic doors long closed.”

Much current research focuses on more overt emotional disorders or conflicts. For example, that LSD-assisted psychotherapy might help reduce anxiety from terminal illness. Another, that “magic mushrooms” helped alcoholics reduce their drinking; and, a study of the drug MDMA shows a reduction in PTSD symptoms in people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.

But also highly intriguing are the observations that psychedelics can have lasting, significant effect on transforming your personality. For example, a Johns Hopkins study found that a single session of psilocybin can produce lasting personality changes. The Hopkins study reported that “Lasting change was found in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness. Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over decades of life experiences.”

In a recent Huffington Post interview, Johns Hopkins researcher Matthew Johnson discussed research by him and his colleagues on the effects of psilocybin and other psychedelics, which he calls a “paradigm shift,” that “Psychedelics open a door to the mind, and then what’s behind that door is really all about the participants and the intention that they bring to the session. The fact that the effects last beyond the time that you take the medication — that’s really a new paradigm in psychiatry.”

Credit: CPD Archive

 

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Why It’s Possible To Alter Your Personality

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 12.17.47 PMSeptember 29, 2015

The novelist Norman Mailer wrote in The Deer Park, it’s a law of life that “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.”

So true, though many people believe that who you are – specifically, your personality – is fixed. In fact, much conventional thinking in psychology holds that our personalities remain constant.

But that’s not accurate: We’re always changing and evolving, in some way – for better or for worse. Many of us mental health professionals witness that occur among our patients. Keep in mind that who we may “become” is being shaped and determined by who we are right at this moment, by the kind of person we are inside; the qualities that we express in our daily lives, relationships and aspirations.

It’s good to see some recent research that confirms our capacity to change and grow dimensions of our personality. Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to “practice” them in daily life.

One example: Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study that tested the degree to which people could “grow” a particular personality trait or quality over a period of 16 weeks. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the participants who desired to change some dimension of themselves did so, in contrast to those who displayed less interest. The researchers pointed out that the results were modest, but that they show, “…at the very least, people’s personality traits and daily behavior tend to change in ways that align with their goals for change.”

They explained that it’s an unfolding process: “Goals led to changes in behavior, which led to changes in self-concept, which prompted more behavior change.”

I think this highlights the importance of having a vision of your more “developed” self; some aspect or dimension of your personality that you aspire towards. That has the effect of drawing you towards expressing those qualities of yourself, like being pulled by a magnet. Continue reading

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What Matters More — Your Character, Or What You Can Do For Me?

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This is one of those experiments that give credence to an intuitive feeling, one that’s consistent with a philosophical/spiritual perspective but we often ignore when we want to extract value from others, for our material benefit. The study, conducted by NYU researchers, found that people’s impressions of others’ character is a more important factor than what they might be able to do for us, when making decisions about them.

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, contradicts the conventional thinking that when we learn from positive or negative feedback in our interactions with people, we make conclusions based on the benefits they bring us – their “reward value.”

As so often the case, “conventional” thinking,” is often based more on assumptions than on evidence. As this study’s lead author Leor Hackel explains, “When we learn and make decisions about people, we don’t simply look at the positive or negative outcomes they bring to us—such as whether they gave us a loan or helped us move. Instead, we often… form trait impressions, such as how generous a person seems to be, and these impressions carry more weight in our future social decisions.”

In the experiment, participants made a series of “reward-based” decisions while their neural activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants learned about other people in a series of interactions in an economic game played over the computer. Part of the study examined whether participants learned the relatively generosity of a player—a “trait impression”—in addition to learning the monetary worth of the player. The researchers’ statistical tests showed that participants learned generosity information more strongly than reward value.

After the experiment, described in detail here, participants were asked to choose which players they would prefer to interact with in a future cooperative task. The researchers found that their preferences were strongly guided by their trait impressions of players, relative to a player’s reward value. According to David Amodio, one of the researchers, “In other words, our results show that people naturally see others and even objects in terms of more general characteristics—and not just in terms of mere reward value.”

Credit: CPD Archive

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How Your Personality Can Change And Grow — Or Stagnate Over Time

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There’s an old Buddhist saying that if you want to see into your future, just look into a mirror. It’s true, that who we are right now, and at each moment of time into the future, shapes who we become – for better or for worse. Although that truth is evident to anyone who’s at all observant of how people’s lives unfold and evolve over time, it’s interesting to see empirical evidence supporting it. The latter helps those who think we’re fixed in our personalities over our lifetime. Unfortunately — and ironically — such people tend to be those of us in the psychological and mental health fields.

This new study from Germany focused on people who experience loneliness early in life can act in ways that increase that aspect of their personality – leading to more loneliness and poorer health over time. And the experiences we seek out can also affect and shape our personalities, in reverse, over time. As the research finds, “there’s evidence that personality changes as we get older. And just as we can strive to lose weight, there’s evidence we can intentionally change our personalities.

The researchers found that “our personality affects the likelihood that we’ll become more lonely (and feel less well) as we get older, but also that being lonely (and feeling less healthy) shapes our personality, potentially setting up a vicious circle of isolation.”

Although this study looked at negative personality traits and how they interact with life experiences, I think it’s more significant to consider how we can evolve and grow positive dimensions of ourselves over time, with conscious intent and a vision of how we want to “become.” Here, clinical evidence joins philosophical teachings. As the novelist Norman Mailer wrote in The Deer Park, it’s a law of life that “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.”

Credit: The Las Vegas Gentleman

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Workers With a “Spirit of Life” Are More Productive – At Any Age

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Are the most energized and creative workers young, per se; or are they “young at heart?” A new study sheds some light on this: It found that your own sense of yourself; your overall attitude about life influences your work. I describe the findings below, but the study brings to mind that we often speak of the “spirit of youth” when describing an older person who conveys vitality, passion and engagement. However, I think it’s more accurate to think of that spirit as a spirit about life itself. It may be more embodied within or visible among younger people, but I attribute that to this: Many people in our culture enter a long descent into emotional, creative and spiritual stagnation — via the values of a self-centered, overly materialistic society. That’s what I see in so many of the people who have come to me for help – either for personal issues or career-related conflicts.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was described in The British Psychological Society’s publication, Research Digest, and it concludes that If you want a dynamic workforce, seek not the young, but the young at heart. The study surveyed over 15,000 employees from 107 companies to determine how subjective age influences workplace performance. It found that employees who felt substantially younger than their chronological age were more successful in meeting the goals they’d promised their managers they would achieve. Companies with more of these “young at heart” employees also tended to perform better overall, in terms of financial performance, efficiency and a longer tenured workforce. The survey also showed that organizations tended to have more young at heart workers when they offered both age-inclusive policies and, on average, their employees felt that their work was more important and meaningful.

This raises questions about what’s needed to counter that long descent that I described above. Among the possibilities are more meaningful, engaging work, which can enable people feel more vibrant and experience some impact upon the consequences of their contribution. When workers can feel young, energized by their work — and not judged and stereotyped — that facilitates the kind of dynamic performance thought to be limited to younger workers…until they begin that slow descent into stagnation.

Credit: Pharic Crawford 

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The Enduring Impact of Loss…In Love and Life

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 12.30.09 PMApril 28, 2015

As a young boy living in upstate New York, I loved roaming through the nearby woods and fields by myself, on summer days. One sunny afternoon I came upon a tall, thick-trunked tree that had a deep scar on it’s lower portion. It looked like it had been struck by lightning some years before, and was damaged there. Yet it continued to grow.

That memory came to mind recently, as I reflecting on experiences of loss in our relationships and lives, over time; and what endures from them. I recall an essay by the novelist Walter Mosley, who wrote about an awakening, as a small child – his first “mystery.” He described a memory of his three-year-old self in the backyard of his parents’ house, in which he realized, “These must be my parents” and he called out to them. “My mother nodded. My father said my name. Neither touched me, but I had learned by then not to expect that.”

He described ”an emptiness in my childhood that I filled up with fantasies,” and noted that “the primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal.” Interestingly, Mosley grew into the acclaimed mystery novelist he is, today.

Sometimes an unexpected event triggers a memory of a once-meaningful adult relationship. It may have faded over time, but had etched itself onto our soul. For example, the writer Lee Montgomery described a drop-in visit by the son of her first lover, with whom she had many romantic and adventurous experiences in her early youth, during the 1970s. “When I think of Ian, I think of endless days hanging out in the woods and fields around our New England prep schools, sucking dope out of a metal chamber pipe. Ian showed me the world and taught me to live in it. New York City. The Great West. And Europe, where we lived for several months during his first college year abroad.”

Eventually, their relationship ended. She went on with her life, married, began a career. He inherited money, married, “…had no career that I knew of and shot himself when he was in his 30s.”

The son, quite young at the time his father committed suicide, was now about the age Montgomery when she and his father were lovers. He had dropped by her office hoping to hear some stories of what his father was like. Montgomery describes how fresh and alive the memories felt to her, as she drew into them: “Sitting across a booth studying this young man, I was overwhelmed. So many years later, I was stunned to find the feeling of first love still there.” Continue reading

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Money, Gratitude, Happiness: Are They Linked?

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 11.55.32 AMApril 21, 2015

A new piece of research suggests people who feel thankful and grateful experience greater happier in life than those who are more focused on material wealth and possessions. Interestingly, when the more materialistic people experience gratitude in some form, their level of happiness rises.

The study, summarized in BioSpace, was led by James A. Roberts of Baylor University. The researchers wanted to examine “the relationship between materialism – making acquisition of material possessions a central focus of one’s life – and life satisfaction.”

Many studies have shown that more materialistic people are generally less satisfied with their standards of living, their relationships and their lives as a whole. Given that, the researchers wondered if anything could moderate that relationship; that is, help materialistic people more satisfied with their lives.

That is, they raised the possibility that the experience of gratitude — viewed as the positive emotions you experiences when another person intentionally gives or does something of value to you — might stimulate greater overall happiness within the more materialist and less happy individual.

The research, described and published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, initially confirmed what previous studies had found: “People who pursue happiness through material gain tend to feel worse, and this is related to negative appraisals of their satisfaction with life.” But they also found that the experience of gratitude, when it occurred, also raised their satisfaction with their lives. On the other hand, the more materialistic people who experienced little gratitude or positive emotions had the least life satisfaction.

I think the most useful aspect of this research is not so much the finding that materialistic people might become happier if they experience gratitude, but rather the importance of seeing that appreciation, thankfulness and gratitude is part of health human development, and is a feature of positive, mutually supportive connections with others, in contrast to serving self-interest, alone – especially in the form of material acquisition.

Photo credit: CPD Archive

 

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A True Test of Empathy Towards Others

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.44.38 AMApril 7, 2015

Many people believe themselves to be compassionate beings who experience empathy towards others. That’s the capacity to put yourself “inside” the other person, and experience his or her reality. It’s different from just feeing sympathy for another’s situation. Research confirms our innate capacity for empathy; we’re “wired” that way. But practicing it? That doesn’t always occur, especially when you’re challenged to do so. I think the latter presents the true test. For example, say you’re feeling burdened with stressful situations or conflicts of your own; and a friend or family member is also experiencing major difficulties. Are you able to muster up and convey empathy to that person, when you’re dealing with your own difficult issues at the same time? That’s the real challenge. It’s a kind of corollary to the idea that virtue is meaningless in the absence of temptation: Empathy is meaningless in the absence of major self-concerns! 

Photo credit: HBR.org

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Must You Feel Trapped By Regrets About The Past?

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John, a 57 year-old man, consulted me for a mixture of “personal and career stagnation,” as he put it. His thoughts soon turned to a decision he made in his 20s, when he reluctantly entered a career path and profession that his father urged him to follow. He said he now saw that his need for parental approval back then was part of a larger pattern that also led him into a marriage with the “wrong” partner. “I feel so much regret, about how foolish I was not to listen to my own heart – if I even knew what it was back then.”

Throughout the decades I’ve heard many men and women express similar laments about turning points in their lives – significant experiences or choices they made, which they look back upon with deep regret and feelings of entrapment. They tell me the sadness they feel about the direction they took; what they turned away from, especially when they see the consequences over time that they feel entrapped by.

However, it’s possible to experience your regrets in life differently. Those regrets have likely taught you something about yourself and changed you. But you may not realize it. And, you may not have acted upon what’s changed within you, as you go forward in your life today.

To explain, lets first take a look at two examples of people’s regrets and how they can paralyze one’s present life: The woman who dropped out of graduate school when she was offered an entry-level editorial job with a newspaper. She was attracted by the seeming security of the position, and she said she had doubts about her journalistic skills, anyway. She remained with the paper for many years, while feeling increasingly stagnated. Ultimately, she was let go during a retrenchment. Now, at midlife, in a tight job market and an unforgiving life situation for people like her, she tells me, “If only I had stayed in grad school, how different my life would have been. But now…” She says she feels trapped and depressed about her life.
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5 Essential Mind-Body-Behavior Practices That Enhance Everything

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Evidence from both clinical observations and empirical research increasingly confirms that how you engage your entire being in the world significantly impacts your physical, mental, emotional and relationship health. Moreover, each of several life practices enhances the others; they are synergistic. Let’s look at some:

Cultivating a positive outlook is associated with a healthier heart and lower incidence of osteoporosis. This study of 5100 adults from the University of Illinois found that “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” according to lead author Rosalba Hernandez. And, “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Similarly, research conducted by the University of Eastern Finland found that post-60 year old women who have higher levels of satisfaction with their lives were found to have higher bone density, and suffer less frequently from osteoporosis than those who are more unsatisfied with life. The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine,assessed life satisfaction by looking at such factors as “interest in and easiness of life, happiness, and loneliness,” as reported in an AAAS summary. Although the study focused on women, men, as well, suffer from osteoporosis; and more significantly, would experience greater overall health with a positive mentality about life.

And still another study finds that people who experience positive emotions also have greater longevity, as do those who express self-determination in life.

Western empirical science is validating the benefits of such Eastern mind-body-spirit practices as meditation and yoga. 
Their benefits have been well known to practitioners, but they are now increasingly embraced in the West because the evidence from research makes their benefits more “believable” and acceptable to Western thinking.

Two recent examples: Continue reading

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A Positive Mentality About Life Increases Both Cardiovascular and Bone Health

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February 3, 2015

Do you want to increase your heart health and keep your bones strong throughout your lifetime? Cultivating a positive mentality about life helps, according to new research findings. Such studies add to accumulating data that your emotional, mental and spiritual states are interwoven with your physical wellbeing. We’re seeing Western empirical science steadily confirm what’s been observed and known about the mind/body/spirit interconnection within the ancient Eastern traditions.

One new study found a strong connection between optimism – a generally positive outlook on life – and cardiovascular health. This study of 5100 adults from the University of Illinois found that “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” according to lead author Rosalba Hernandez. And, “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Optimists had significantly better blood sugar and total cholesterol levels than their counterparts. They also were more physically active, had healthier body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke, according to the research, published in Health Behavior and Policy Review. This was the first study to examine the association of optimism and cardiovascular health in a large, ethnically and racially diverse population.

According to Hernandes, “This evidence…suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being — e.g., optimism — may be a potential avenue for…improving Americans’ cardiovascular health.”

Similarly, research conducted Continue reading

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Why A Family Tradition Had To End…And The Life Lesson It Taught

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January 13, 2015

After the holidays, discarded Christmas trees appear on the streets of my neighborhood. They’re left curbside, awaiting the special trash pickup. Seeing them, denuded and shorn of their holiday ornaments, I always feel a bit pensive, along with a tinge of humor, as I recall a Christmas tree tradition my then-young children and I had years ago. Each year we’d gather together for a special ritual we had created around putting up, and eventually taking down the Christmas tree.

It had begun when we were still an intact family. And it continued for some years, post-divorce, until, that is, a time came when their flagging interest got my attention. It happened one post-holiday year when I realized that I’d have to do the dismantling part by myself. But instead, I let it just sit there for a very long time, even as the dry tree kept shedding its needles and became, well…a fire hazard.

The back-story: Beginning in my children’s earliest years, and on through my divorce and Continue reading

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Post-Holiday Loneliness? It Has Many Sources — Here’s What May Help

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January 5, 2015

I was standing in a bar and watching all the people there
Oh the loneliness in this world well it’s just not fair

 — Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy”

Holiday seasons often intensify feelings of loneliness for many – even if you’re in a crowded bar, as in Brian Wilson’s song, or in an unfulfilling relationship. Aside from what some people experience during holidays, loneliness can intensify at any point in the year. And it can have different roots for different people.

For example, Anne, a therapy patient, tells me that she’s felt lonely throughout her life. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and sometimes-present father, her intimate relationships have been brief and her friends, few, throughout her adult years. Now in her early 40s, she’s suffered from one physical ailment after another.

Another patient, Brian, has an active social life with friends and business associates, as well as a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this apparently full relationship life, he speaks of feeling lonely “right in the midst of everyone around me…something always feels missing.” Brian, too, suffers from frequent illnesses and allergies.

That both have physical complaints isn’t surprising, since our mind/body/spirit are all one. Each “part” affects each other “part.” In fact, some new research underscores this. It finds that loneliness can weaken your immune system, which then sets the stage for a range of physical illnesses. Continue reading

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Meditation Changes Key Regions Of The Brain, Research Finds

 

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December 23, 2014

Here’s one more study that shows the powerful impact of meditation has upon regions of the brain associated with stress, empathy and sense of self. And in just eight weeks.

This new research conducted by Harvard researchers found measurable changes in the brain after an eight-week program. A report of the study from the Harvard Gazette, to be published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, pointed out that the study is the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.

For the current study, magnetic resonance (MR) images were taken of the brain structure of 16 study participants Continue reading

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Meditation and Yoga Enhance Creative Imagination and Positive Emotions

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November 18, 2014

Western empirical science continues to validate the benefits of such Eastern mind-body-spirit practices as meditation and yoga. Such benefits have been well known to practitioners for eons, but the practices and the philosophical perspectives associated with them are now increasingly embraced in the West. Not only because they are beneficial, but also because of confirmation from the kind of research studies that are acceptable to Western thinking.

Two recent examples add to the list: One finds that meditation can promote creative thinking –even of you’ve never meditated before. Findings from the study, conducted at Leiden University and published in Mindfulness, show that meditation can have a long-lasting effect on your thought processes, including the creation of new, imaginative ideas. Interestingly, though, the study found that enhanced creative thinking was associated only with such meditation practices as mindfulness – observing and acknowledging thoughts and emotions that arise; being receptive to them without “following them.” In contrast, an increase of creative thinking was not associated with meditation practices that involve singular concentration on an object.

The other recent study found that yoga practice diminishes anxiety and improves overall mood. This study, led by Boston University researchers and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, examined brain levels of GABA among participants in a yoga practice of one and a half hours over twelve weeks, compared with other forms of physical movement.

Low levels of GABA are associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. Continue reading

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Feeing Depressed? Take A Hike!

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October 7, 2014

It’s true: A new, large-scale study has found that taking a walk in nature diminishes depression and stress. This isn’t surprising. Our minds, emotions and spirit are interconnected with our physical environment. The restorative powers of connecting with the natural world have been well known for millennia, and now there is a bit of empirical research that demonstrates it.

The study, led by the University of Michigan and a team of British researchers, found that group nature walks were linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being. Although the research focused on the effects of group nature walks, it’s likely that walking by oneself has similar impact upon your mental health.

“We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside but there haven’t been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being,” says senior author Sara Warber in a summary of the research reported in Medical News Today and Science Daily. “Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster. Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.”

Moreover, the study found Continue reading

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“Don’t Disrupt My Negative Mood!”

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July 1, 2014

Our view of ourselves — and the world — creates our reality. When that’s negative and anticipates failure, one tends to draw to oneself “evidence” that confirms and reinforces it. That is, when people become fixed within their negative view of themselves, they recreate and reaffirm it to themselves, as they go along in life. And they resist — even oppose — any efforts to help them examine the roots of their view of themselves, and work towards, in effect, changing their inner world. Here’s a new study that gives some empirical underpinning to this. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study was conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

They found that people with low self esteem will often maintain their negative view of themselves and the world, and will oppose efforts to help them reframe how they think and feel. They will interpret critical feedback, romantic rejections, or unsuccessful job applications as evidence of their general unworthiness, according to the researchers. “People with low self-esteem want their loved ones to see them as they see themselves. As such, they are often resistant to their friends’ reminders of how positively they see them and reject what we call positive reframing-expressions of optimism and encouragement for bettering their situation,” said Professor Denise Marigold, the lead author of the study.

Science Daily‘s summary of the findings added: 

These individuals usually prefer negative validation, which conveys that the feelings, actions or responses of the recipient are normal, reasonable, and appropriate to the situation. So a friend could express understanding about the predicament or for the difficulty of a situation, and suggest that expressing negative emotions is appropriate and understandable.

The researchers found no evidence that positive reframing helps participants with low self-esteem. And in fact, the people providing support to friends with low self-esteem often felt worse about themselves when they attempted to cheer up their friend.

Some study participants indicated that supporting friends with low self-esteem could be frustrating and tiring. The researchers found that when these support providers used positive reframing instead of negative validation in these situations, they often believed the interaction went poorly, perhaps because the friends with low self-esteem were not receptive and the efforts didn’t work.

“If your attempt to point out the silver lining is met with a sullen reminder of the prevailing dark cloud, you might do best to just acknowledge the dark cloud and sympathize,” said Professor Marigold.

 

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Cynical? You’re Increasing Your Risk Of Dementia

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Science continues to demonstrate the active interconnections between all “parts” of ourselves and the physical/social environment that we experience and deal with throughout life. This is more than “brain-behavior” or “mind-body” connection: we are biological-psychological-spiritual-social beings. All dimensions of ourselves are constantly at play. A recent study reveals a new connection between a personality dimension — cynicism — and the likelihood of dementia. The research, published in the journal Neurology, found that people with high levels of “cynical distrust” were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism.

I think such research shows the system-wide impact of the emotional attitudes and perspectives about life that we consciously create and shape — or let take root from unexamined, unresolved life conflicts — upon our entire being.

The researchers, led by Anna-Maija Tolppanen at the University of Eastern Finland,  defined cynical distrust as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns. They assessed level of cynicism by asking people how much they agreed with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “It is safer to trust nobody” and “Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.” The researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Moreover, the link between cynicism and dementia was not accounted for by depression; they appear to be independent factors. Continue reading

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Having a Life Purpose Increases Your Longevity

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In the “all things are connected” department, a large-scale longitudinal study has found that people who having a sense of purpose live longer. The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that those who had died over the course of the study had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.

Summarized in a report from the Association for Psychological Science, the study also found that having a life purpose consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, whether for younger, middle-aged, or older participants.

According to the lead researcher, Patrick Hill, the findings indicate that creating “…a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose.” The study examined data from over 6000 people, including their self-reported level of purpose in life, across a 14-year follow-up period.

The study also found that a sense of purpose had similar benefits regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And, that the longevity benefits of life purpose held up even after other indicators of well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account. “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” says Hill.

Can Your Create a Sense of Purpose?

I think he’s right, but it’s more likely that they are interwoven factors: A sense of purpose is likely inseparable from a positive spirit about living, which infuses both physical and emotional wellbeing over the long-run.

So how can you create a sense of purpose within today’s turbulent, often confusing world? Most people acknowledge there are “parts” of themselves – desires, imaginative capacities — that remain stifled or dormant. Family experiences and conditioning into your beliefs and values often result in a limited, constricted definition of who you are. For example, Continue reading

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The Passing of Peter Matthiessen

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 12.41.47 PMSo sad…the unexpected passing of Peter Matthiessen at 86. A great literary figure, non-fiction & fiction; Zen teacher, environmentalist, human rights advocate…

My personal contact with him was minor, really, and scattered over the years. But he’s always been a model for me – disciplined and focused; a gifted writer, keenly aware of the nuances of human character. Always generous with his time, I found him humble and wise; open and authentic…

The New York Times obituary appeared, ironically, on the same day a scheduled retrospective of his career and life was published in the Times Sunday Magazine. From the obit:

Peter Matthiessen, a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prizewinning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them, died on Saturday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.

His son Alex said the cause was leukemia, which was diagnosed more than a year ago. Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books. Mr. Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island’s East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E. L. Doctorow.

In the early 1950s, he shared a sojourn in Paris with fellow literary expatriates and helped found The Paris Review, a magazine devoted largely to new fiction and poetry. His childhood friend George Plimpton became its editor.

A rugged, weather-beaten figure who was reared and educated in privilege — an advantage that left him uneasy, he said — Mr. Matthiessen was a man of many parts: littérateur, journalist, environmentalist, explorer, Zen Buddhist, professional fisherman and, in the early 1950s, undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Paris. Only years later did Mr. Plimpton discover, to his anger and dismay, that Mr. Matthiessen had helped found The Review as a cover for his spying on Americans in France.

For the rest of the obit, click here. For the Sunday Times Magazine article, “Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing,” click here.

 

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Meditation Changes The Expression of Your Genes

Screen shot 2014-04-01 at 10.54.46 AMEvidence continues to mount that how one’s genetic tendencies or vulnerabilities, are actually expressed — or not — is highly shaped by our life experiences, both those that we choose and those that are handed to us. A new study demonstrates how the practice of meditation affects the expression of genes that are involved in one’s stress response and inflammation, which underlie a wide range of health conditions, physically and mentally. It found evidence that meditation results in beneficial changes at the molecular level.

The research was reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology and conducted with meditators who engaged in an intensive 8-hour session of mindfulness meditation. They were compared with a group of 21 others who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities for the same period of time. Both groups gave blood samples before and after their activities. When researchers analyzed the samples at the molecular level, they found that the expression of genes which are involved in inflammation, and generally in the body’s stress-response, were down-regulated.

Moreover, tests of cortisol levels in participants’ saliva revealed that the expert meditators were able to recover quicker after an induced stressful event than the control group. In a summary of the research Richard Davidson, one of the authors of the study, said, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice. Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression.”

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“Your Money Or Your Life!”

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 10.34.49 AMIn one of Jack Benny’s classic comedy skits, a robber confronts him, demanding, “Your money or your life!” Benny — in character as a notorious tightwad — pauses for a long moment. The robber shouts his demand one more, with urgency. Finally, Benny says slowly, “I’m thinking it over!”

Many people today are caught up in a real life version of this dilemma. They acknowledge the stress, the physical and psychological perils of our prevailing view of success. The Third Metric movement is raising awareness of this, and surveys continue to document it. But, while most would prefer a more balanced, integrated life, they also feel reluctant or frightened to alter their endless pursuit of money and related measures of success. One of the reasons many keep “thinking it over” is visible in a lament coursing through the lives of many successful careerists: That “I don’t like the person I’ve become,” as one corporate executive expressed it to me.

George is an example. A highly successful executive in his mid 50s, he’s had a solid educational background, a steady career rise, and a functioning though not especially energized marriage, and two children. As he worked with me to deal with chronic anxiety and general malaise in his “always on” life, he awakened to having always “followed the program” in his life. That is, performing well, shaping his values, personality and goals along a path that was laid down and expected by his parents.

George was drawn to public service and journalism when younger, but that wasn’t part of the “program.” He craved Continue reading

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Why Your Therapist Should Go “Back to the Future”

Screen shot 2014-01-28 at 9.22.27 AMI recently spoke to psychology doctoral students about the innovative contributions of some pioneering psychoanalysts in New York and Washington and who collaborated during the 1930s -1950s. Several found commonalities in their work to expand traditional psychoanalytic understanding about emotional conflicts and their treatment. Some were European, having fled the Nazis; others, American. Among the most prominent were Erich FrommKaren Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan. Their ideas were often rejected—or attacked—by the psychoanalytic establishment back then.

After I spoke to the students about the contributions of those three, it struck me that both the emerging generation and current psychotherapists could help patients by reclaiming their legacy. And not just their creative mindset, but an overlooked, core part of their contributions.

That is, most therapists today recognize the significance of interpersonal and relationship issues that those three contributed: that our sense of self and much dysfunction is rooted in the web of relationships we experience from birth. That part isn’t overlooked. What many ignore is that Fromm, Horney and Sullivan also drew attention to social and cultural forces in our “outer” world, forces that shape—for better or worse—who we become: Our values, attitudes, personalities and level of emotional health or dysfunction. That dimension of their work became increasingly marginalized and disregarded over the decades, with few exceptions. That loss diminishes therapists’ capacity to discern the roots of patients’ conflicts and provide effective help.

Ironically, those early analysts’ insights about social conditioning are highly relevant to life conflicts in this second decade of the 21st Century—a time of great transition and turmoil affecting peoples’ relationships, career and life challenges. It would benefit psychotherapy patients if more therapists went “back to the future” in two ways:

First, Continue reading

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Why Reading Serious Fiction Benefits Your Psychological Development

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 12.37.38 PMThe recent death of Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing—one of the most significant writers of our time, in my view—brought to mind that serious fiction spurs your spiritual and psychological development, your essential soul. It’s a gateway to “evolving” yourself during your lifetime, rather than stagnating within the person you’ve become. The latter path—which so many people descend into to—was captured by Norman Mailer in The Deer Park: “It is a law of life that one must grow, or else pay more for remaining the same.”

Delving into serious fiction engages you in the core human issues that everyone grapples with, consciously or unconsciously. The prime one is the question of, “What’s the meaning of life; of my life?

And, there are related issues concerning moral judgment, the impact of social conventions, conflicting paths in life, and so on. When you’re awakened — or threatened — by portrayals of those in good literature, you’re often forced to confront your own life choices and dilemmas in new ways, with new perspectives. You’re likely to resonate with the George Eliot quote, “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”

Lessing’s vast body of work is especially relevant to stimulating your soul’s evolution. Or, in Western psychology’s language, your “true self.” She portrayed the intertwined political, personal, sexual, cultural and ideological forces in people’s lives from pre-World War II, through the sexual and social revolution of the ’60s, to the present era. Among her novels is an interconnected series under the umbrella title, Children of Violence. Thery chronicled a woman’s character and life development via her social, sexual and political awakening.

Her final volume of the series, Continue reading

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More Research Finds Humans Are Hardwired For Empathy and Connection

Screen shot 2013-09-28 at 9.01.15 AMResearch evidence continues to mount that humans are hardwired for empathy and connection. Despite our surface differences and conflicts, both minor and major, we are one, beneath those differences, like organs of the same body. But we haven’t evolved enough quite yet to enact that truth. The latest research, from a University of Virginia study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscienceindicates that we experience people who we become close to as, essentially, our own selves.

“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” said lead researcher James Coan. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans (fMRIs), the study found find that “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to.” He added, “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”

“It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” Coan said. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.” And, “A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” he said. “Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal.”

The research underscores that humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And, as people spend more time together, they become more similar.

In my view, that indicates that our essential “sameness” emerges as we become familiar with people whom we initially experience as “different,” or threatening. Hopefully, we will continue to evolve in that directions before fear of “the other” and self-interest destroy us.

The research summary in Science News describes how the research was conducted: Continue reading

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An ‘Inside-Out’ Life Helps You Redefine Success

Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 9.18.35 AMIn a recent post I explained that you can’t balance work and life because both are part of your outer life, while “balance” comes from guidance by a strong inner life. Since then, many have asked me to describe more about the inner life — where your true self lies — and explain why that’s the core of redefining success –away from fixation with money, power and position, and towards more balanced, healthy and integrated lives.

In the present post I explain more about the inner life and why it’s so crucial for success and well-being in our society during these times of rapid change and turmoil. Previously, I’ve emphasized the parallel need for supportive, positive leadership within companies; and that we can already see examples of workplace and career trends that are redefining success for our “post-careerist” culture. All these shifts — underway and needed — reflect the rising awareness of the inner self and the need to respond to it.

Moreover, these shifts of consciousness, which propel what I’ve called the “4.0” career orientation, are visible among men and women across the generational spectrum: older baby boomers seeking “encore” careers of more meaning and service, and Millennials, who embrace transparency, collaboration and constant change in their careers. All seek career success within the economic climate and historical moment they live within but also feel the pull towards fulfilling something missing from the soul, the psyche, from relationships and life, itself — missing when only outer life criteria are the measures of success. Continue reading

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J. D. Salinger — New “Revelations” Miss the Vision Within His Glass Family Stories

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 11.59.18 AMThe new book and documentary about J. D. Salinger by Shane Salerno and David Shields promote themselves as revealing substantial new information about Salinger’s writings and his famous reclusiveness. I think the most intriguing information from it is confirmation that several new works from Salinger will be published in the next few years. However, I think this new project misses the point about his writings and their meaning, as have previous critics over the years — including Mailer, Updike and others. They seem fixed on interpreting his work and life as indicating withdrawal and detachment from the world. However, quite the opposite is reflected in reading his Glass family stories. Contained within them is a vision of engaged connection and love — that’s his overriding theme, within an acknowledgement of our human flaws and failings (including his own.) No wonder Salinger disengaged from responding and replying to those who tried to interpret him within a Hemingway-esqe framework.

Now, in a very thoughtful and insightful piece about Salinger’s vision contained within his Glass stories, beyond the Catcher In The Rye, Andrew Romano presents a more accurate understanding of Salinger’s work. He writes in The Daily Beast, “Neither Mailer nor any of his fellow travelers seemed to notice that Salinger was trying to accomplish something different than what he was after when the Glass series began in the late 1940s.” And, “By the time Franny and Zooey came out in 1961, followed by Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963, Salinger’s style had changed. Gone was the idiomatic cool, the chic minimalism, and the formal shapeliness of “Bananafish”; in its place was something shaggier, more digressive, more self-conscious, and more explicitly spiritual.”

Romano’s essay is well-worth reading and reflecting upon. Click here for the entire piece.

 

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Wealth, Entitlement and An Inflated Self

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 9.55.27 AMResearchers at Berkeley have found that higher social class is associated with an increased sense of entitlement and narcissism. This is another study in the realm of “demonstrating the obvious,” but that’s good, because it gives research data underpinnings to clinical observations. The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also found that promoting values that reflect a sense of equality with others had a diminishing affect on their narcissism. And that’s especially interesting because it links with other studies that find that empathy and compassion are innate; we’re “hardwired” that way, as this recent study finds, for example. But that capacity can be dulled or diminished by socially conditioned values and rewards, which then shape our conscious sense of self. We then define ourselves in ways that limit and constrict our sense of who we’re capable of being.

The current study about social class and narcissism was summarized by Eric W. Dolan in The Raw Story:

Climbing the economic ladder can influence basic psychological processes within an individual. According to a new study , wealth tends to increase a person’s sense of entitlement, which in turn can lead to narcissistic behaviors. Continue reading

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People Will Choose Music That Parallels Their Emotions

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 8.05.13 PMHave you ever been drawn to sad music when you’re feeling low, or angry-sounding music when you’re mad? Some new research confirms that people choose that association, in relation to their mood. The research, reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that, for example, people in negative moods choose sad music even when more pleasant alternatives are available. From the research report: “(Participants) liked angry music more when they were frustrated by interpersonal violations (being interrupted; someone always being late) than by impersonal hassles (no internet connection; natural disaster).” And, when they “were asked to recall experiences involving loss, preference for sad music was significantly higher when they had experienced an interpersonal loss (losing a personal relationship) versus an impersonal loss (losing a competition).” Continue reading

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Why “Learning” Compassion Leads to Greater Altruism

Screen shot 2013-06-08 at 10.12.13 AMIt’s good to see research that demonstrates our capacity to awaken and evolve our consciousness and become more fully “human” – in our mental perspectives, our emotions and our behavior towards others. Two recent strands of such research illustrate this. One is the increasing, legitimate research on the beneficial powers of psychedelic drugs, especially psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy), being conducted after a long stretch of unwarranted legal prohibition. The other strand provides accumulating knowledge of how we are able to alter our brain, our attitudes and conduct through conscious effort and practice. And, that meditation is powerful vehicle for this.

For example, new research demonstrates that you can “learn” compassion through specific meditative practices fairly quickly; and, intriguingly, that teaching yourself to become more compassionate directly translates to altruistic behavior. This latest study was summarized in a University of Wisconsin press release. Conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded by Richard Davidson, the leading researcher in this field, it investigated whether you can train adults to become more compassionate; and whether that results in greater altruistic behavior and changes in related brain activity. Well, you can, and it does. Continue reading

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New Research into Psychedelic Drugs and their Positive Benefits

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 11.02.06 AMFor decades, now, research into responsible medical and psychological uses of psychedelic drugs has been forbidden by law. Recently, however, some research into psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDNA (ecstasy) and other chemicals has begun in university research settings. It’s become allowable by a slight shift of laws towards more sanity: allowing research that can aid healing of emotional traumas and create positive development in one’s attitudes and behavior. This is a welcomed trend. Some recent studies are described in an article by Don Lattin, “The Second Coming of Psychedelics,” in Spirituality & Health. He writes, “What’s new is that these powerful mind-altering substances are coming out of the drug counterculture and back into the mainstream laboratories of some of the world’s leading universities and medical centers. Research projects and pilot studies at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Purdue University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, are probing their mind-altering mysteries and healing powers. Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and Ecstasy are still illegal for street use and cannot be legally prescribed by doctors, but university administrators, government regulatory agencies, and private donors are once again giving the stamp of approval—and the money needed—for research into beneficial uses for this “sacred medicine.” For the full article, click here.

Similarly, a recent article by April M. Short in AlterNet describes research reported at the conference of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). She reports that “Today, in addition to other psychedelics and cannabis, MAPS continues to study the healing potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.” Continue reading

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Train Your Brain To Become More Compassionate

Screen shot 2013-06-01 at 4.36.21 PMThis isn’t new, but it’s good to see accumulating research demonstrate that we are able to alter our consciousness, attitudes and behavior in positive directions. This research, published in the journal Psychological Science, and conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, examined whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion. It found that it does.

“Our fundamental question was, ‘Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?'” says Helen Weng, lead author of the study. “Our evidence points to yes.” In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, a Buddhist practice to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”

Participants practiced with different categories of people. They began with a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for, like a friend or family member. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, then, a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the “difficult person,” such as a troublesome coworker or roommate. “It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng says. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

I’ve found this to be true, clinically, with psychotherapy patients, and also with others to whom I’ve recommended some exercises that help expand and enhance their experience of empathy and compassion. That is, Continue reading

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